When we first arrived in Hanoi, we were freaking out about how to get from the airport to our hostel. Marissa spent hours reading about how tourist are often ripped off (or worse) by taxi drivers. We played it safe and had the airport organize us a ride for ~$20, rather than having to negotiate the price ourselves. Being freshly in a new country, we weren't ready to argue over prices in a currency we didn't yet understand. We got to our accommodation safely and were pleasantly surprised by the great location and customer service at the Hanoi Old Quarter Hostel. After resting in our room for a few hours, we were ready to take on Hanoi.
Places to See
Ho Hoam Kien Lake: The lake is located in Old Quarter, a very quaint, yet still insanely bustling part of the city. When we first arrived to Hanoi, we walked around the lake to get a feel for the city. The next day, jet lag had us up at 4am, so we returned to the lake for sunrise. Though the smog and humidity prevented us from seeing any type of sunrise, it was an amazing experience waking up with the locals. Unlike New York City, Hanoi actually sleeps. At 4am, the once crowded roads are completely empty. The sidewalks, which are usually crammed with food stalls, vendors and motorcycles were completely clear so we could actually walk on them! It felt like I was walking around a European neighborhood- it's hard to imagine how the streets transform so drastically in just a few short hours. As we walked around the lake, thousands of other Vietnamese people did too. Everyone was speed walking laps around the lake, stretching, or participating in tai chi or zumba-like dance classes.
Temple of Literature: Only a 15 minute walk from our hostel, the Temple of Literature was a beautiful oasis in the city. This temple, founded in 1070, is also Vietnam's first university and is a rare example of ancient Vietnamese architecture. The temple was bigger than we anticipated, so visiting at the hottest time of day was less than ideal. We treated ourselves to a bike taxi pushed by a little Vietnamese guy. The poor soul didn't know what he was in for when two Americans hopped on his cart...
Hoa Lo Prison Museum: This prison was first used by French Colonists to imprison Vietnamese political prisoners, but was then used for US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War (like John McCain). Over 100 Vietnamese people escaped from this prison through the sewer. I feel like the French would've caught on after a few people escaped, but apparently not. I don't think I could fit my right leg through the hole these people escaped through. To be fair, the prison uniforms on display proved that that a Vietnamese prisoner was the size of an American 2nd grader.
Food to Eat
We were told that there would be noodles. There are noodles, that's for damn sure.
Pho Bo: The quintessential Northern Vietnam noodle dish. Bo means beef, but you could get pho with chicken, pork or just with vegetables. Think Asian chicken noodle soup. They often add salad greens right into the soup, so there are lots of contrasting flavors and textures. I like my pho so spicy that my nose runs. Its important to remember that my version of spicy is mild for the Vietnamese, so we had to be careful when ordering. Sometimes, we reverted to getting vegetable pho because the meat (even the chicken) was often very questionable. One time, I ordered chicken pho, but received a bowl containing strange, rubbery, inedible pieces of mystery meat. I think I mistakenly ordered a specific part of the chicken (that people don't generally eat), but for a minute I thought I was eating dog and it was devastating. People eat pho for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We did too. Until we got bored of pho. Then we got pizza...
Bahn Mi: Thanks to the French influence in Hanoi, Vietnam has phenomenal baguettes. All around Vietnam, you'll find amazing sandwiches that contains meat, cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, daikon, tomato, and a mayo-like sauce. They're freaking delicious.
Street doughnuts: I bought doughnut holes on the side of the road from an old lady. I saw a few locals get doughnuts from her, so I figured she was legit. I couldn't resist the temptation and thank god I didn't. These doughy balls of sweetness were straight up gifts from the heavens above. For 50 cents, I got a bag and was blown away.
No go: Margaritas aren't really a thing here and it's probably for a reason. They don't know how to make a frozen marg for shit.
Crossing the street: The streets of Hanoi are unlike anything I've ever experienced. There are actually no rules for drivers. Driving on the wrong side of the road? No biggie. Red light? Optional. Pedestrian? What's that? Crossing the road is a feat in itself. Traffic will absolutely not stop for you. You just have to step out into the road and walk at a constant pace until you reach the other side. It's unbelievable and so exhilarating that you won't get hit, they all drive around you. You might think that someone will hit you, but if you flinch/pause/double-take, you WILL risk getting hit. They anticipate your pace and drive around you. Marissa's method was to look down and pretend no one was coming so she could keep a steady pace. Personally, I loved jumping out into traffic and strutting through the street like I was untouchable.
Making friends: At the airport waiting for our flight from Taiwan to Hanoi, we approached a western-looking guy to ask when and where we are supposed to board. Though he was as clueless as we were about the flight, we were thrilled to hear that he is a Canadian teaching English as a second language! Brendan taught English in Japan for a year and is moving to Hanoi to start his own non-profit business that aims to train and place English teachers where students need but cannot afford an English education. Brendan had been to Hanoi several times, so he was an excellent tour guide when we landed in the city. Hanoi is extremely overwhelming, so it was a relief to have someone who knew some cool places to see and some good places to eat.
I'm gonna be real here...I'm very friendly to everyone, but I'm slow to actually befriend someone. Who am I kidding? I love making friends! I'm just a control freak overwhelmed in a new country. To be honest, all I know right now is my Vietnam itinerary and my first and last name. I was hesitant to make friends on the first day because, like, what if he/she wants to do something Marissa and I don't want to do! That sounds really crazy, but I guess I AM kinda crazy. I just like to do/see the places I read about and think Marissa and I would like. Ugh I'm sounding even crazier as I write this. Anyways, if there's anything I learned my first few days in Southeast Asia, it's that people are chill. It's so nice meeting new people and exchanging stories and information about places to visit/not to visit. Other backpackers are extremely helpful and can show you places you can only find if you know someone who has already been. We've met some awesome people already and I'm sure Marissa and I will keep in touch with many of them. If backpacking in Southeast Asia can't teach me to go with the flow, I don't know what can.
Taking advantage of tourists: I know it's their job, but I was still rattled. The front desk lady at the Old Quarter Hostel in Hanoi was a memorable person for this reason. She was an angel for organizing many excursions for us, but she was also personally responsible for causing a huge amount of stress. Marissa and I were very overwhelmed upon arriving in Hanoi. We only had two weeks to explore Vietnam! There is so much we want to see, but we also want to go with the flow and be open to changing our plans (note: we learned that you absolutely need a plan if you want to see the most of a country in only 2 weeks). Anyways, this lady was constantly up our ass about planning excursions. Being in a new country, we were vulnerable to being ripped off and wanted to make sure we were getting a fair price, using reliable tour companies, going to worth-while places- ya know? (lol I'm never gonna be able to go with the flow). She kept saying that the excursions would be full soon and I needed to commit NOW or I'm screwed. We fell for it the first time, but then realized its actually her job to secure sales (duh). I got better at asserting my opinion and being like "fine, I'll wait and book somewhere else later" and she's like "well just check in first and see if the tour you wanted is actually full". News flash: IT NEVER WAS FULL! JOKES ON ME! Learning lessons in Vietnam.